John Locke and Christian Deism

(side note: does anyone else have the issue of instantly thinking of a certain tv show character when seeing this authors name lol)

In the early history of deism, four names stand out: Edward Herbert (known as Lord Herbert of Cherbury), Charles Blount, John Locke, and John Toland. I mention these four in my essay entitled History of Christian Deism, but there is much more to the story. John Locke (1632-1704) was a famous English philosopher who was opposed to deism so he wrote a book On the Reasonableness of Christianity intending to defend what he considered to be traditional Christianity. But Locke’s book turned out to support the deist’s view of Christianity, and was a tremendous boost to the Christian deist movement.

In this essay, I will describe the earliest beginnings of deism, and show the connections between Edward Herbert, Charles Blount, John Locke, and John Toland.

The term “Deism” became the common name for natural religion in England in the seventeenth century. The earliest mention of the term “deist” was in France in 1564. Pierre Viret, a leader in the Protestant Reformation used the term “deist” in a letter but he did not define the term or identify any specific deist. It appears that the term was used to refer to anti-trinitarians who believed in God but did not believe in the divinity of Jesus.

The earliest known use of the term “deist” in England was in 1621 by Robert Burton who did not define the term or identify any specific deist. Burton wrote that “too much learning makes them mad” which implies that deists may have been rationalists in religion. About fifty years later, the term “deist” was in common usage in England because Bishop Edward Stillingfleet, of the Church of England, wrote “Letter to a Deist” in opposition to deism in 1677. At that time, blasphemy laws and censorship prevented deists from openly publishing their views.

Edward Herbert (1583-1648), in England, was an early proponent of natural and universal religion. In 1624, Herbert published a book entitled, De Veritate (“Concerning Truth”) in which he claimed that “truth” can be discovered through innate human “faculties.” These natural “faculties” were (1) a natural inclination to seek happiness, (2) conscience, (3) sense perception through sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, and (4) reason (logical thinking).

Applying these “natural faculties” to the subject of religion, Herbert proposed five “religious truths” which he called “common notions” because he claimed that people all over the world gave “assent” to these notions.

Herbert’s five “common notions” in religion are: (1) There is a Supreme God, (2) God ought to be worshipped (out of gratitude for God’s “providence,” or all that God provides to humankind), (3) Piety (reverence for God) is best shown through virtue (good human behavior), (4) Repentance is the only remedy for the wrongs when our conscience convicts us, and (5) after this life, there is reward for good behavior and punishment for unrepented bad behavior.

In 1645, Edward Herbert repeated his “common notions” of religion in a book entitled, De Religione Laici (“A Layman’s Religion). Although Herbert promoted natural and universal religion in which human reason played a large part, he was not a deist.

In 1683, Charles Blount (1654-1693) published a book entitled Religio Laici which was based on Edward Herbert’s book of similar title (De Religione Laici). From this and other writings, Charles Blount is the first person who can be clearly identified as a “deist” although he did not publicly profess to be a deist because civil laws made this a punishable crime. Since Blount attributed the ideas in his book to Edward Herbert (by then deceased), Blount avoided prosecution.

In 1693, in a book entitled The Oracles of Reason, Charles Blount included an article “A Summary Account of the Deists Religion.” It is believed that Blount wrote this article in 1686 and circulated it privately for some years before publication in The Oracles of Reason. Blount was careful not to put his name on the article in the book. This article is the earliest known published statement of deism. (Details of this article are included in my essay, “The Importance of Beliefs.”)

In 1690, the famous English philosopher John Locke published An Essay concerning Human Understanding in which he proposed his theory of how human beings acquire “understanding” or knowledge. In this essay, Locke attacked Edward Herbert’s claim that his five “common notions” were true because they had “universal assent.” Locke pointed out that many people did not believe in the existence of God so this belief did not have “universal assent,” and humankind did not have “innate” knowledge of God’s existence.

Locke claimed that the only innate, or intuitive, knowledge that a person has is that of one’s own existence. According to Locke, from the knowledge of one’s own existence as a “cognitive” (knowing) being, a person can reason that there is a cognitive (knowing) Being called “God” because “something cannot come from nothing.”

Locke wrote that other than our intuitive knowledge of our own existence, human knowledge comes from “sensation” (perception through sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste), and through “reflection” (the use of the mind to form ideas by using what we perceive).

Although Locke believed that human reason could lead a person to religious truths, he believed that most people failed to reason, and therefore needed to be given “truths” by individuals who received supernatural “revelations” from God. Locke referred to Hebrew prophets in the “Old Testament” and Jesus whom Locke viewed as the “Son of God.”

Locke’s opposition to deism led him to write a book entitled On the Reasonableness of Christianity in 1695. Locke believed that “Adam” had lost his “immortality” by disobeying God and therefore all human beings were born as “mortal” beings who would die. Locke rejected the idea that humankind had inherited “guilt,” or a corrupt human nature, from Adam’s sin but Locke believed that humankind had inherited “mortality” and needed to be saved from death.

According to Locke’s version of Christianity, a person would be saved from death if that person believed that Jesus was the “messiah” or “Son of God.” Locke wrote that belief in Jesus would be evident in a person’s repentance for his or her own sins, and a sincere effort to do good works as illustrated in Jesus’ parable about feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, etc. (Matthew 25:31-46).

Locke also believed that Jews who lived before the time of Jesus would be saved from death if they believed that God had promised to send a “messiah.”

By limiting “salvation” from death to those who believed that God promised to send a “messiah” or who believed that Jesus was the “messiah,” Locke recognized that he faced a serious question from deists. Locke, himself, stated the question, “What shall become of all the rest of mankind, who, having never heard of the promise or news of a Savior–not a word of a Messiah to be sent or that was to come–have had no thought or belief concerning him?”

Locke responded, “To this I answer that God will require of every man ‘according to what a man hath, and not according to what he hath not.’ “. . . . many to whom the promise of the messiah never came, and so were never of a capacity to believe or reject that revelation–yet God had, by the light of reason, revealed to all mankind who would make use of that light, that He was good and merciful.”

Locke continued, “The same spark of the divine nature and knowledge in man, which making him a man, showed him the law he was under, as a man, showed him also the way of atoning the merciful, kind, compassionate Author and Father of him and his being, when he transgressed that law. He that made use of this candle of the Lord, so far as to find what was his duty, could not miss to find also the way to reconciliation and forgiveness, when he had failed of his duty, though if he used not his reason this way, if he put out or neglected this light, he might, perhaps, see neither.”

Locke added, “The law is the eternal, immutable standard of right. And a part of that law is that a man should forgive, not only his children, but his enemies, upon their repentance, asking pardon, and amendment. And therefore he could not doubt that the Author of this law, and God of patience and consolation, who is rich in mercy, would forgive his frail offspring, if they acknowledged their faults, disapproved the iniquity of their transgressions, begged his pardon, and resolved in earnest, for the future to conform their actions to this rule, which they owned to be right. This way of reconciliation, this hope of atonement, the light of nature revealed to them; and the revelation of the gospel, having said nothing to the contrary, leaves them to stand or fall to their own Father and Master, whose goodness and mercy is over all his works.”

Deists must have been delighted to read Locke’s answer. Locke unintentionally made the Deists’ own case for a natural and universal religion based on reason.

Locke apparently realized this, too, because he then wrote, “It will here possibly be asked, ‘What need is there of a Savior? What advantage have we by Jesus Christ?’ ”

Locke tried to answer this question by saying that we cannot understand all of the purposes of God in sending a messiah. For example, “we know not what need there was to set up a head and chieftain in opposition to ‘the prince of this world, the prince of power of the air’ etc.” In other words, perhaps God needed someone to lead the battle against Satan or the Devil. (Note: Deists view the idea of “Satan or the Devil” as superstition.)

Then Locke offers other reasons for God sending a “Savior.” Locke wrote, “The evidence of our Savior’s mission from heaven is so great, in the multitudes of miracles he did before all sorts of people, that what he delivered cannot but be received as the oracles of God and unquestionable verity.” In other words, people would know the truth was from God because it is confirmed by the miracles of Jesus. (Note: Deists reject the idea that God intervenes in human affairs by performing supernatural “miracles” in violation of natural laws.)

Locke argued that although people could use reason to find God, they often did not do this because “lust blinded their minds,” or because of “careless inadvertency.” Locke also blamed heathen priests for “fill(ing) their heads with false notions of Deity” and “priests everywhere, to secure their empire, having excluded reason from anything having to do with religion.”

Locke wrote that “knowledge of morality by mere natural light makes but a slow progress and little advance in the world” so “. . . . it is plain there was need of one to give us such a morality–such a law, which might be a sure guide to those who had a desire to go right, and, if they had mind, need not mistake their duty, but might be certain when they had performed, (and) when failed in it. Such a law Jesus Christ hath given us in the New Testament . . . . by revelation.”

Locke added that Jesus “brought life and immortality to light.” “. . . . he has given us an unquestionable assurance and pledge of it in his own resurrection and ascension into heaven.”

At the end of his book, Locke wrote, “God, out of the infiniteness of his mercy, has dealt with man as a compassionate and tender Father. He gave him reason and with it a law, that cannot be otherwise than what reason should dictate, unless we think that a reasonable creature should have an unreasonable law. But considering the frailty of man, apt to run into corruption and misery, he promised a deliverer, whom in his good time he sent, and then declared to all mankind, that whoever would believe him to be the Savior promised and take him (now raised from the dead and constituted Lord and Judge of all men) to be their King and Ruler, should be saved.”

In his effort to present a “reasonable” Christianity, Locke emphasized that Jesus taught “repentance” and “virtuous living.” Locke also admitted that human beings could use reason to discover these same truths.

Locke’s lack of “orthodoxy” was immediately recognized by the English trinitarian clergy. Locke had said nothing about Jesus having to die on a cross to pay the penalty for sin, the central doctrine of atonement in trinitarian Christianity. Also, Locke’s view of Jesus and God differed from the church doctrine of the “Trinity” so Locke was accused to being a Socinian (anti-trinitarian).

In “An Essay concerning Human Understanding“, in 1690, Locke had expressed his belief that some truth that is “beyond reason” (i.e., beyond human comprehension) should be accepted if it comes through “revelation.” However, such truth must be examined to be sure that it is not contradicted by reason, and that there is evidence that the truth came from God. In his book, On the Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke wrote that the “miracles” performed by Jesus were evidence that Jesus taught the truth from God.

Almost immediately after Locke published his book On the Reasonableness of Christianity in 1695, a deist John Toland published a book Christianity Not Mysterious in 1696. In his book, Toland defined as “mysterious” any doctrine that was beyond human comprehension. Toland, who claimed to be a follower of Locke, wrote that any doctrine that was “mysterious” was not essential in Christianity. Toland wrote that God would not expect any person to believe a doctrine that was beyond human comprehension.

Toland wrote that his book Christianity Not Mysterious was the first in a series of three books that Toland intended to write, and in his second book, Toland would specify which Christian doctrines should not be accepted because they could not be validated by human reason. Toland never got the chance to publish the second book. Trinitarian clergy assumed that Toland was referring to the doctrine of the “Trinity of God” as “beyond human comprehension.” When Toland went to Ireland, his native country, the Irish clergy and government had Toland’s book burned by the hangman, and Toland had to leave the country to save his life.

Toland’s book started a firestorm of debate in England about deism, and a flood of deist books came during the next four decades. Six years after the publication of Christianity Not Mysterious, Toland had to defend himself against charges made by authorities in the Church of England.

John Locke’s books, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and On the Reasonableness of Christianity, had a great impact on the development of deism in England. Although he was opposed to deism, Locke’s arguments in favor of reason, and his emphasis on repentance and virtuous behavior in Locke’s version of Christianity contributed to the recognition that Jesus taught the principles of deism.

In his book On the Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke admitted that the truths taught by Jesus can be discovered by the use of human reasoning. Although Locke believed that miracles by Jesus would convince people to accept God’s truth, Deists find no necessity for believing in miracles. The truth we need to know is self-evident to anyone who thinks about it.

Brother John

October 11, 2004

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Allan Cronshaw
Allan Cronshaw
1 year ago

While John Locke had many excellent ideas and concepts, he was misguided by the fact that the Original Gospel account of Jesus was pure Deism. When rightly understood, the scriptures are an… Read more »

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